The "novel in stories" has become an increasingly common form in current American fiction, so while Pamela Ryder's Paradise Field is recognizable enough in its use of the developing conventions of the form, it expands the possibilities of this hybrid genre just enough to warrant publication by a press (FC2) that is one of the longest-lived publishers of "experimental" fiction, and illustrates that the "story novel" still might hold some potential for surprising us.
The overarching narrative to which the individual stories contribute (although not necessarily sequentially) concerns the final decline and death of the protagonist's father. These two characters (the protagonist is referred to throughout simply as "the daughter") and their at times problematic relationship emerge as the book's primary focus, but not every story in fact directly concerns them. Still, even the stories set elsewhere (France, in "The Renoir Put Straight") or apparently about other characters ("Arrow Rock") depict experiences universal enough (a young child observing the behavior of the adults around her in the former story, for example) that they might surely echo the lives of the daughter and her father, or may in fact refer obliquely to these two characters even if they are not directly identified (the characters in a motel room in "Arrow Rock"). "Badly Raised and Talking With the Rabbi" apparently takes place at the father's funeral, but in this case the daughter is identified only indirectly through a one-sided conversation carried on by the woman who may have been the father's live-in girlfriend.
This latter character makes a couple of appearances in the book, although her relationship with the father is not much developed. Since this is finally a collection of stories, however, such development is not a generic requirement, as "unity of effect" properly applies first to the discrete story and its self-sufficient aesthetic needs. This gives Paradise Field as a whole a more impressionistic surface quality while at the same time preserving the distinction between "story" and "novel," the tension between the two helping to sharpen our sense of how a "novel in stories" might be defined as a category of fiction in its own right, not simply as a series of stories with in-common characters or setting, or as an "episodic" novel. How far beyond the sort of unity we expect to find in a novel can such a book as this go, it seems to ask implicitly, and still have a broader coherence that transcends the separate goals of each particular story?
The book's impressionism is further reinforced by the variety of technique employed in the individual stories. The first, "Internment for Yard and Garden: A Practical Guide" takes the form of an instructional pamphlet for the "suburban Jew" on the proper disposition of the recently deceased, which begins to periodically blend together with specific details about the case of the daughter and her father, thus introducing us to this situation as the book's subject. The second story, the title story, takes us back to the daughter's childhood and narrates a series of phone calls between father and daughter that seems to establish the father's frequent absences from home as the source of the daughter's ambivalence about their relationship. Other stories emphasize the father's nostalgia about his days as an air force pilot, while eventually attention focuses mostly on the daughter's efforts to care for the father in the last stages of his old age.
Many stories rely substantially on dialogue, but others, such as "The Song Inside the Plate" and "Irregulars" consist of long blocks of prose. Similarly, some are more fully developed narratives that could be called "stories" of the conventional kind, while others, such as "Recognizable Constellations and Familiar Objects of the Night Sky in Early Spring," rely more on juxtaposition and association, while still others are very brief scenes that might qualify as flash fiction. Most of the stories are told in the third-person, with the viewpoint staying very close to that of the daughter (although without much attempt at "free indirect" psychologizing), but "Mitzvah" (about the father's stay in a nursing home) brings us even closer to the daughter's perspective by instead employing a second-person narration, the references to the daughter as "you" giving us an even more immediate appreciation of the daughter's troubles by implicating us in her actions. In the book's final story, "In Other Hemispheres," the daughter visits with her father's spirit one final time as his coffin is being taken to the cemetery, where the image of his body being lowered into the ground merges with one final reverie returning him to the cockpit of his airplane as it falls to earth.
While Paradise Field is formally interesting, however, what finally commends this book most to readers interested in something other than the customary sort of literary fiction is its way with language, a style that seems perfectly suited to the subject and methods of the book but that also seems reminiscent of the more adventurous prose of writers such as Noy Holland or Dawn Raffel. These are writers influenced by Gordon Lish (who indeed provides a back cover blurb for Paradise Field as well), and Ryder's fiction does feature the kind of sentence building and sonic effects identified with Lish's approach to writing:
They went to where there would be canyons, where the daughter had once walked in her younger years, had traveled along the bluffs and ledges, had seen those vast regions of sage and mesa cleft with chasms of stone and the rivers of their incisions--and now wanting the father to see--while there was still time, while there was still breath and sense and flow through these most turbulent of tributaries within his fisted heart--wanting the father to see again what he had already seen, though long ago and largely from the air. ("As Those Who Know the Dead Will Do")
In an interview, Ryder says of style in fiction that "Language always prevails over content. You’ve got to let the language win out, even if it changes what you think you want to say" ("Through the Viewfinder: Pamela Ryder with Peter Markus"). In the above passage (the first paragraph of the story), we can see a sentence in the process of "winning out." It seems to continually extend itself, adding detail and changing direction, not simply to accumulate information but to seek out the possibilities of its own prolongation and potential associations, through such devices as assonance, consonance, alliteration, and repetition. These stratagems are applied lightly, so that the wordplay doesn't distract from a story's expository and descriptive imperatives, but almost every story offers passages that might prompt us to pause and consider the dexterity with which the sentences take shape, making Paradise Field a consistently pleasurable and rewarding reading experience.